Thangam Debbonaire, Shadow Minister for media, culture and sport and MP for Bristol West, recently gave the following interview about arts policies to Culture Matters and the Morning Star.
Q. Unlike some other previous occupants of your position, you’ve had direct experience in the arts, particularly music. How did that come about and how does it influence your outlook?
I was brought up surrounded by classical music. My maternal grandfather was on the car assembly line in Cowley, Oxford — his wife was a part-time nurse — and my paternal grandfather was an engineer in India. They’d both been exposed to classical music at a young age, by their parents among other people. My mother and father were both lucky enough to find their ways to excellent piano teaching and met at the Royal Academy of Music.
That was back in the days when students still got grants and scholarships and young working-class people could afford to get through college with the help of a bit of extra work.
This has taught me that no art form should ever be thought of as inherently and only ever for one class. Classical music was the balm of the working class a couple of centuries ago, when cheap tickets to Mozart operas and memorable tunes meant a labourer was just as likely to hum an aria on their way home from a night out as the landed gentry. The difference was that the upper classes had better seats.
Such socialist values inform my approach to the arts and culture. I don’t want working people to be excluded from appreciating or working in any of the things that can make life good and rich and enjoyable. That includes opera, ballet and classical music. The most immediate way art and culture influence my politics is that I want the enjoyment, fulfilment and inspiration I get from the arts and culture to be shared by the many, not restricted to the few. Classical music has always been in my life and particularly recently I needed the joy and calm it brings me — I’ve grown to love Beethoven symphonies at last, I love music for string quartets of all eras and in the last year I have been studying the work of Shostakovitch.
This again informs my politics — Shostakovitch suffered under Stalin and his perceived failure to honour what the latter had decided was good for “the people” caused him to be effectively barred from working and risk imprisonment or death. Eventually Stalin changed his mind about Shostakovitch’s music and the past was suddenly wiped away from official policy.
This should be a lesson for us all — dictating to people in the arts how to do their job is not the role of politicians.
As a former professional classical musician, with a strong interest in the opera and the theatre, the terms and conditions of musicians and actors — and everyone in the arts — matter to me.
Everyone thinks of the better-paid, celebrity musicians and actors but the vast majority are on very low wages or uncertain job conditions, often a life-time of what feels like zero-hours contracts, supplemented by casual part-time work.
Musicians have to train for years and practice or rehearse for hours every day to be any good and that sort of craft deserves to be recognised in pay and conditions.
Similarly, actors have to work their craft and be willing to travel and leave family life for weeks on end and this has to be recognised. I will continue to listen to Equity and the Musicians’ Union on how the Tory government is affecting rank-and-file musicians and actors.
During my campaign to be elected I was proud to be supported by my own unions, the Communication Workers Union and Unison, as well as my former union the Musicians Union. They believed in me and I value their support hugely. The Labour Party has its roots in the trade union movement and I will always honour that.
Q. Evidence suggests there’s a disproportionate amount of government money spent on art for the privilged minority. What’s your view on that?
The Tories are satisfied to leave the pleasures of some art forms to the better-off and that’s the key difference on all policy matters between Labour and them. We want the essentials and the good things in life to be enjoyed by the many, not the few, whether that be safe and affordable housing or a ticket to the opera.
The Tory and coalition governments brought about a reversal of the achievements of the last Labour government which, from 1997 to 2010, made significant progress towards democratising access to all art forms.
Really good outreach should be a condition of public funding. The Arts Council agrees that public funding should help with the fullest possible democratisation of the arts and that’s why its policy document is called Achieving Great Art for All and its funding is conditional on outreach. I would like that outreach to go further and I will be exploring how this would work under a Labour government with my colleagues and arts practitioners.
Recently I went to an open rehearsal in Bristol for the National Children’s Orchestra under-13s in Bristol’s Colston Hall. The orchestra is ethnically diverse and I also noticed that instruments traditionally dominated by men in professional orchestras were very gender-mixed.
When I was in local and national youth orchestras in the 1980s, we were in the dying days of the peripatetic music teaching system whereby children in most local authorities could learn the instrument of their choice and be given one on loan, for free, from good quality teachers in their schools. Saturday morning orchestras and bands supplemented this — again, all free.
This was something which flourished under Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s and was cut to ribbons by Tory administrations from 1979-1997. And here we are again — funding which increased under the 1997-2010 government for arts and culture for young people has been cut once more.
During that period, Labour governments supported many arts programmes to increase effective outreach, providing free tickets to school children from low-income areas and introduced the Creative Partnerships Initiative which brought the arts to the children in their schools and in incredibly imaginative ways which made a lasting impact on those children and young people.
Local authorities are doing their best. But the pay, terms and conditions for specialist music, dance and drama teachers is often now so poor that they are leaving the profession.
Q. What do you think about the difficulties faced by minority ethnic groups in the cultural industries?
The removal of arts from our education system is a tragedy. It reinforces the exclusion of the working class, including young people from minority ethnic groups, from the arts as employees and consumers. It needs addressing and that’s one of the things I will be working on with my colleagues in the shadow education team.
There needs to be more people from minority ethnic groups and disabled people on boards of trustees of arts and culture organisations and for principles of diversity to be more embedded.
Organisations need to look and feel like places that people from minority ethnic groups and disabled people can be comfortable and inspired in, not alienated by.
There is a need to help arts organisations to reflect diversity in everything they do and I know the Arts Council is working on this. But this has to be balanced with the fact that Tory policies are also doing their damage.
Q. Apart from education and outreach, should the arts be subsidised?
Yes — take the cinema, which rarely requires direct subsidy as it can stimulate larger audiences and profit. But, again during the Labour 1997-2010 government, support for Channel 4 and tax subsidies for film production meant that the proportion of British GDP from film production multiplied. That brought more jobs — technical as well as creative — to Britain and working-class people.
That’s what subsidies for the whole range of the arts and culture forms can do, democratise access to participation and employment in all those industries.
As socialists, we should all be in favour of that. The taxpayer gets a great return on that investment. Subsidies for the arts generate jobs inside and outside the sector, with an economic multiplier factor that helps boost economic growth and good jobs in the area where the subsidy is spent.
Q. What should be done about the different levels of arts provision between the north and south in England?
That disparity concerns me hugely. Part of my role will be to work on this with colleagues in the arts and culture industries and with people across the country to work out how we can remove this barrier to consumption and enjoyment.
There have been significant Labour achievements to balance this out. The Labour Gateshead council, supported by the Labour government, invested in world-class venues the Baltic art gallery, the Sage music and conference venue and a massive piece of public art, the Angel of the North statue by Anthony Gormley.
All attract pride from, and create jobs for, locals and stimulate tourism from around the world to one of the poorest regions in the country. Labour did a brilliant job of recognising that investing in arts and culture across the board increases the sum of human happiness, democratises access to employment and enjoyment and also helps with urban regeneration, as it did in Gateshead and Liverpool, to name just two of our northern cities.
Add to that the Creative Partnerships programme and good outreach by arts organisations and you have something that was really working to help spread the reach of all art forms to all people.
One reason for the funding disparity is that so many of our national arts institutions are based in London. Of course, we outside London can go and visit them and often do. But many cannot afford to, or would not know how to access them. Even so, many national companies bring their work to the regions through touring and live cinecasts and the last Labour government supported the development of more national iconic cultural institutions around the country, such as the various Tate galleries in Cornwall and Liverpool.
Q. Working-class people are finding it increasingly difficult to get into the arts as a career and, due to spending cuts and the sheer cost, to enjoy the arts as consumers. What should be done about that?
The tragedy is that we have now gone into reverse to what Labour were doing. A Tory government prefers the patronage approach, whereby funds are increasingly drawn from private donations or trusts, with much less public accountability and often severe cuts to access and employment.
Young working-class people find it much harder to get a job in today’s arts and culture sector thanks to the decrease in support for apprenticeships, education and outreach. By contrast, current Labour policy development is as always informed by our socialist principles. Excellent art should be for everyone. This was reinforced from 1997 to 2010, with free entrance to museums, theatre, opera and concerts for young people. And there was the wonderful Creative Partnerships programme which helped bring arts and culture to children in schools.
Q. What developments in Labour Party policies might we expect from the new leadership and shadow cabinet?
I’m going to to help develop our arts and culture policy in collaboration with workers in the sector and Labour members and councillors across the country, as well as the performing arts unions. I’ll be holding a series of events nationally to bring the key people together to help answer the question: “How can we make Britain a place where excellent arts and culture is truly accessible to all? How do we in Labour support the arts to do what they do best, without dictating how they do it?”